India and Myanmar  3 – 18 November   Reader be warned, I have sought to do justice to my subject. This article contains more than 6,700 words.


I couldn’t contemplate a visit to Myanmar without going to India to catch up with family and friends. Usually this has meant staying in Gurgaon with my former in-laws with whom I have maintained a loving relationship. The fact that Kolkata is the city in India from which one flies to Yangon provided an unmissable opportunity for me to spend time with family friends I had last seen more than 30 years ago.

Sightseeing in Delhi

The day before my flight to Kolkata I booked Rajendra, the trusted driver whom the family hires for longer journeys, to take me to some outlying tombs and ruins which I had not seen on previous visits to Delhi. I urgently needed to buy more rupees. Rajendra pulled up at a money changer’s in a busy street en route to our first destination, Haus Khaz. A short external staircase led to a dingy room in which sat a shifty-looking man behind a counter.  A board, listing various currencies but no rates, was fixed to the end wall. In response to Rajendra’s question the man lifted his calculator to show me the rate on offer. It was 3 rupees to the Australian dollar more than I was given on arrival at the airport. I had my passport with me, but the man declined to see it. I handed him  A$100 and he handed me 5,800 rupees. My one thought was that I hoped the notes weren’t forgeries.

The tombs at Haus Khaz did not disappoint, being considerably older than their more celebrated and visited Mughal equivalents. The grounds were tranquil and decently maintained with well-written and illustrated signs pointing out the major features of the buildings. Pigeons roosted beneath the dimly lit domes, fluttering in and out through the few openings. Siri Fort predates Purana Quila which in turn predates Old Delhi’s Lal Quila or Red Fort. It is the third incarnation of Delhi, dating from circa 1303 and the first to be built entirely by Muslims. One can see a fair length of ruined wall and a gate by strolling in a park primarily created for this purpose. The fort even predates by a few years the far more extensive and complete remains of Tughlaqabad which I opted to revisit in preference to the Qutub Minar. I thought the terra-cotta planters atop the concrete barriers dividing the crowded road were a pleasing touch.

The traffic eased as we neared Tughlaqabad’s superb 15m high ramparts. Having bought my entry ticket, I was adopted by a man who flashed a card at me referencing the Archaeology Department of India. I had no way of knowing if it was genuine. My guide wanted to take me to the ruins of the palace. But I struck out along a path beneath the walls. As we walked the guide explained that the city had 7 water tanks, to  one of which our route led. The path rose gradually to a wide expanse of irregularly shaped, large stones set in a thick matrix of cement. This was the top of the tank wall. There was no railing, just a sheer drop of perhaps 20 m to the bottom, accessed by steps built against two sides.  I found this disregard for human safety, previously experienced in India, more vertigo-inducingly terrifying than ever. I was overcome by a feeling of my life being in the balance as I looked into the tank, which seemed barely wider than it was deep, and quickly stepped back from the wall. I had seen less vertiginous, but geometrically exquisite step-wells still in use in Rajasthan and step-ponds in temples in southern India.

Thereafter I was happy to visit the ruined palace. A rustling in the undergrowth hinted at the presence of a large animal. Looking to my left I saw a couple of deer the size of a small horse. They were Sambars and had wandered into the city from outside. Tughlaquabad’s walls enclose an area of 121.4 ha, some 300 acres, much of it being what my guide referred to as jungle, though a modern village has obliterated a sizeable portion of the city. A broad, deep moat, dry and overgrown, but once the city’s main reservoir, separates the palace and the citadel, which I had explored on my first visit in 2004. The moat was formed by quarrying the stone used for building Tughlaqabad. It was time to return to Palam Vihar. The guide invited me to pay him what I regarded as an appropriate fee. He watched me take a 100 rupee note from my wallet and with alacrity demanded 250 rupees which I gladly gave him as we parted.

 A Weekend in Kolkata

Kolkata now has a smart new airport and a much improved road into town. On my first visit I couldn’t reconcile the presence of lamp posts and the absence of pavements in the city’s suburbs. Nothing had changed. I had hoped that the route would take me past one of the scariest and most   precarious-looking structures on earth. A black metal water tank the size of a football field towering over its surrounds on scores of spindly columns. Failing to see it made me think that perhaps it had been demolished to avert a pending disaster. Not so. The Tallah tank celebrated its centenary in 2011. Amid growing concern for its viability, it is about to be assessed for an extensive overhaul. It is the world’s largest overhead reservoir. The steel tank is 16’ deep and its base is 110’ above the ground. The columns are cast iron. Only 14 leaks have been recorded in its 102 year history. The tank is a marvel of British engineering and crucial to the water supply of millions of Kolkata’s  inhabitants, but for how much longer?

The main part of my stay, catching up with family friends of my ex-wife Kathy, went well. I was royally entertained, to dinner on Friday by Surendra Khaitan at an Italian restaurant, to Saturday lunch at the Bengal Club by his cousin Binod, and Sunday lunch by my late father-in-law’s right hand man, Om Sharma at a restaurant in a newish building in the vicinity of Park Street. All fondly asked after Kathy. The wives, alas, were either busy or too poorly to join their husbands. I would have welcomed their presence, but my being alone seemed to weigh against that occurring.

At dinner, Surendra, a widely travelled man, declared his love of the city of his birth, saying “it gets you” and cited Bangkok as another such place. A couple of days later I phoned to ask him what he meant by that phrase. He replied that the people make the city, that he relishes their sense of togetherness and acceptance, their relaxed approach to life. It was at once an unexpected and obvious answer. Unexpected because it did not convey a sense of place. I pressed him on this and he admitted to liking the city’s municipal and corporate buildings, parks and broad avenues. But for him people transcend sense of place. Obvious, because in India so much of the country’s chaotic life is lived in public view. For me, a city, town or village is defined by the sense of place it conveys, by its architecture, spatial flows, geography, greenery, events, things to do and see. I have a a bit of a soft spot for the crowds in India, but usually find people en masse oppressive, which is why I don’t want to live in a city or town.  I prefer engaging with people in their lively or quiet enjoyment of being where they are.

After breakfast, prior to meeting Binod, I set out to find Park Street. Lacking a map, I walked in the opposite direction, seeing a dead rat in the gutter (later that day I saw several live rats on the tracks at Howrah Station). Eventually retracing my steps, I passed the house where William Makepeace Thackeray was born in 1811 and at last came to Park Street. My intention was to walk to the cemetery without recalling how far along Park Street it was. I remembered it as a gloomy, overgrown, crumbling yet evocative place.

My entry in South Park Street Cemetery’s visitor’s book regrettably tailed off after noting its potent combination of architecture, history and (tropical) vegetation in the heart of Kolkata. It is now in the capable hands of the Association for the Preservation of Historical Cemeteries in India (APHCI), established in 1978 at about the time of my previous visit. Their good work is apparent in cleared paths and restored tombs. Decades of neglect evidently require decades of repair. As I walked in the cemetery, workmen were carefully restoring a handfull of graves. Towards the rear boundary, there are areas empty of tombs and vegetation other than grass. Whether imposing or modest, many of the tombs carry the most poignant inscriptions to loved ones taken at a young age, wives, soldiers, children. Given the perils of life in the tropics for Europeans, the cemetery partly resembles a war grave memorial without the haunting uniformity. The earliest tomb is dated 8th of September 1768. The cemetery’s heyday was from the late 18th century to the mid 19th. Senior military officers seem to have been the longest lived residents of Calcutta then. On reading the excellent little guide book which I purchased, I discovered that the Khaitans, with their tea interests, have been generous donors to the APHCI.

Binod reminded me of the time we visited a jute mill his family owned and how fascinated I was by the machinery being belt driven, formerly by steam, then by electricity. This prompted me to remember the beautiful garden where we had refreshments and how the ample rattan armchairs set out on the lawn recalled images I had seen of western dignitaries posing for the cameras with their third world hosts. Binod plans to visit Australia next year to attend a Rotary gathering, spending most of his stay in Queensland. I look forward to repaying his hospitality in Brisbane.

I had last met Om, a tall man with an endearing grin, in Brisbane when he was on a business trip. His hair was greyer, but otherwise he was little changed, though he admitted to being diabetic. He expressed amazement that before he collected me from the hotel, I had walked to and across the Howrah Bridge and back. After lunch we strolled a little before catching a taxi back to my hotel and parting company.

Studying Kolkata’s buildings, I marvelled at the way they defied gravity and the ravages of climate and time. I concluded that they were an extreme and quintessentially Indian case of making do beyond the call of duty with as little mend as the owners could get away with. Looking at the crumbling parapets I wondered how frequently bits gave way and plunged onto thronged pavements. Obviously rarely, because there would be much more evidence of mend. Some offices were being renovated, including the Writers Building which housed 6,000 civil servants. The late 19th and early 20th century palaces of mammon out-did London in their scale and grandeur, though nearly all had seen better days. Om told me that the reason why buildings were in such a parlous state was that the rents had been controlled for 60 years by a predominantly communist West Bengal government, making it impossible for landlords to find the money to adequately maintain their property.


Ever since I first saw footage of Bagan’s ancient Buddhist monuments seeminly stretching for ever on their lush, river-fringed plain, I longed to travel to this wonderful and aethereal place. Alas, Myanmar was then a pariah state. Miraculously, within a relatively few years the country was sufficiently rehabilitated for me to book a trip which has proved to be a worthy successor to my stay in Angkor.

Bagan Day 1

Being picked up at my hotel in Yangon at 4.30am in  order to catch a plane which would deposit me in Nyaung-U, the airport for Bagan, at 7.30, harked back to my early  trips to India from the UK. Then, as now in Myanmar, one would pay a tidy sum to stay in a four or five star hotel, only to be booted out at some ungodly hour to catch a plane. Today in India, air travel is far more developed and flights more plentiful.

I felt it was far too early to go to my hotel. I asked the driver, Mu-mu, (I am spelling his name as it sounded to me when he introduced himself) what his schedule was for the day. He told me that after taking me to my hotel, he was free. I asked him if he would be willing to drive me around for the day and how much he would charge. He said US$40 until sunset. I said done. The $US in crisp new notes is the preferred foreign currency. I could scarcely credit my good fortune in gaining an extra day’s sightseeing at such an acceptable cost. Thus it was that on leaving the airport we went to Nyaung-U’s picturesque market. Most of the stalls sold produce, mainly fruit and vegetables, of which there seemed to be an abundant and varied supply attractively displayed in baskets. Some sold souvenirs and handicrafts. That early in the morning only a few tourists mingled with the crowd. Other stalls sold clothes and household goods. I particularly liked the roofed and open-sided market hall, built out of bamboo.

Mu-mu next took me along a track to a temple which he said had a good view from its roof gallery. Because the temples are active places of worship, one has to enter them barefoot. I was removing shoes and socks for the rest of the day and just shoes thereafter. Mu-mu was right about the view. The plain is above monsoon river level. What took me utterly by surprise and completely captivated me was that from the gallery one could see the entire extent of Bagan’s 2,200 ancient monuments. They did not stretch for mile after mile in every direction to vanish in a distant haze. They occupy, as I subsequently learned from a book I bought the next day, an area of 26 square miles. Given that so many have spires, the highest over 200’, one can see where they cease to pierce the vegetation. The temple was fairly close to the Irrawaddy which forms one boundary. Mountains to the South and on the opposite bank of the river, felicitously frame the vista. I lingered to fully absorb the otherworldly vision of all those hundreds and hundreds of vibrant orange brick temples, stupas, pagodas, monasteries – randomly scattered in the luxuriant greenery.

What I soon discovered as we drove on is that, magically, the place Bagan, is its monuments. There is no fully blown town such as Siem Reap which serves Angkor’s more numerous visitors.  The hotels, shops and villages which share the plain are largely invisible until one happens upon them. Not so the omni-present monuments, mostly built between the 11th and 13th centuries. They grace the roads on either side. They are found along myriad tracks and at the end of paths. I felt that because of their ubiquity, I did not need to set foot in each and every one to experience their totality. I have been nowhere like it in the world. During the years of its flourishing, Bagan was Burma’s capital. Its dwindling began when the capital was moved to Ava in the mid 14th century. Numerous as these buildings are, land around them has continued to be cultivated and grazed since they were first erected. The vegetation is more savannah than tall forest. The plain is dotted with accacias, rain trees and stands of Toddy Palms.

Mu-mu was a most considerate driver. The car was roomy and comfortable. He drove carefully to smooth out bumps and avoid pot holes in the sandy soil. His English was sufficient for basic communication. Late in the morning we drove past a temple which I wished to take a closer look at. I thought I saw more than one building within the impressive walled enclosure. I told Mu-mu and he reversed along the road and turned into the track from which one enters the compound. It had four gates centrally placed in the wall and four stupas at each corner with the temple in the middle.

Lunch beckoned. Mu-mu drove me to my hotel, where I was able to check in and go to my room. I arranged to meet him at 2.30 to continue my exploration. We first drove to a guilded pagoda in an enclosure high above the river bank, its approach shaded by venerable acacias. The guilding is recent. Later we passed a row of four subtly different small stupas, which enchanted me. Mu-mu stopped the car so that I could get out and take a closer look. Presently, we approached a stretch of city wall on either side of the one largely intact gate through which we entered Old Bagan.

Because I so appreciated the view from the first temple, Mu-mu took me to one next to the excavated ruin of a royal palace The temple appeared larger than it was because of the height of the walls of its square ground floor chamber. The precipitous and cramped ascent to the roof gallery was within the thickness of one of the walls. The roof sloped to a parapet which was well below waist high. I looked over its edge. The ground dropped sharply away from the temple’s base which was supposedly 40’ below, but seemed a lot further. Spooked by my glimpse into the abyss of the Tughlaqabad tank, I now felt queasy being on the roof gallery. I did my best to observe the view and walked the gallery’s entire length staying as far away from the parapet as I could.

I took note of the name of a large temple we visited late in the afternoon. Hitlominlo. It was built early in the 13th century. I loved the way the tier upon tier of corner stupas drew the eye to the top of the slender spire. It is roughly contemporary with Salisbury Cathedral, though it would not have taken as long to build.

According to contemporary inscriptions a medium-sized temple was built in 7 months, whereas a huge stupa took about two years and required six million bricks. Mu-mu told me to be ready to meet Ko Zay (sounded like Gozee), the guide, at 8.30 am next day.

 Bagan Day 2

Ko Zay and Mu-mu were waiting for me after breakfast. Ko Zay had carefully planned our tours, but was open to my requests. During the day he managed to fit in the  substantial stupa whose outline had caught my eye on my travels with Mu-mu. Octagonal walls rose in two or three layers from a square base, culminating in a beautifully proportioned drum which tapered to a simple finial. This was not a noted monument. It was just a building which took my fancy. Ko Zay told me he was 27 and married and Mu-mu was 38 and single. Buying a book about Bagan’s buildings was a priority. Ko Zay undertook to take me to a bookshop after we had been to the first monument on his list

This was the bulky and lofty 11th century Shwe Sandaw Pagoda, reminiscent with its five terraces and centrally placed flights of steep steps, of the 8th century brick temple mount that I happened upon and rapturously explored in Angkor, except that the pagoda terminated in a bell shaped drum surmounted by a spire. Pagodas can be either temples or stupas. Temples exist for worshipping Buddha images, stupas to guard Buddhist relics. Shwe Sandaw was built to house a relic.  Within its walled compound was a later, dimly lit temple housing a huge reclining Buddha.

The bookshop was set back from the street. My recollection is that it was divided by a screen wall in front of which was a table. There was little if any shelving, only piles of nondescript brown paper parcels on the floor with not a book in sight. One of the two women who ran the shop emerged from behind the screen carrying a small vacuum wrapped volume with the unpromising title of Bagan Mystique. I asked for the wrapping to be removed and found several pages stuck together. I requested another copy and carefully leafed through every page. The book was well illustrated and contained helpful introductory chapters. From it I found out the area covered by Bagan’s historic structures. It cost me $9. I subsequently saw it priced at $14. Among the plethora of items for sale at temple gatehouses, George Orwell’s Burmese Days was prominent; an unexpected if understandable literary lure.

Ko Zay’s English was at times hard to understand because he tended to swallow his consonants. I couldn’t guess some words even after he repeated them three or four times. This marred his explanations of the Budhha’s poses and the iconography of wall and ceiling paintings and glazed decorative exterior panels. He was a charming and serious young man who looked after me well and loved his work. I asked him if he would write down the names of the monuments I saw with Mu-mu and he extended the list to include all those we saw together.

The bookshop was on the way to the Shwezigon Pagoda, a Bagan show piece, though not a favourite of mine. The pagoda dates from the 11th and 12th centuries and is said to contain a tooth of the Buddha brought from Sri Lanka. It is at the centre of a vast compound crowded with later shrines, covered walkways, auxiliary buildings and four ancient temples. Many of the structures and sculptures are of recent origin. The Shwezigon is one of two ancient buildings in Bagan constructed entirely of stone. A number of others use stone to strengthen vaults or corners. Worshippers from Myanmar far outnumbered the tourists visiting the shrine.

Just as Bagan has accumulated its fantastic assemblage of monuments to its enduring merit, every one of those buildings was created to accumulate merit for future lives by its patron, whose name is unknown in all but a relatively few instances. Monuments which are to the merit of the ruler are the most prestigious. Most buildings are dimly lit and may contain wall paintings and sculpture which cannot be seen. They are not works of instruction as in contemporary Europe. They exist purely for the patron’s merit. Accordingly they must achieve the highest possible artistry. It does not matter if they are invisible.

The Ananda Temple is of similar date to the Shwezigon, with which it shares the accolade of being one of the four most revered shrines in Myanmar. It is regarded as Bagan’s architectural masterpiece, a perfectly proportioned building. In the midpoint of each wall of the core of the huge, square central block are four standing Buddhas, 9.5m high, made of wood. Symmetrical inner and outer circumambulatory corridors, the latter with layers of niches for sculptures, surround the core. Four entrance halls roughly 25m wide and 20m long are attached to the middle of each of the outer walls, giving the temple its distinctive cruciform shape. The two arms are 88m long. The tower with its spire is 51m high. When viewed from the inner sanctum, the south-facing Buddha has a serious gaze which ingeniously changes to a smiling face when seen from the outer corridor. The Ananda Temple is a highly sophisticated building. The corridor vaults are strengthened with stone. The lighting is exquisite, its drama heightened by the blackness concealing the barrel vaulting. Precisely placed windows illuminate the upper and lower wall surfaces and floors in a subtle pattern of light, penetrating to the inner corridor through carefully positioned openings. The decoration inside and out is rich and varied. This is one of the finest and most beguiling buildings I have ever experienced.

The temple has largely retained its original external appearance thanks to the lime stucco which covers its walls. My rhapsodising about orange brick in a green setting would not be for purists who lament the monuments’  present day paucity of stucco. Original lime stucco, some of it superbly carved, can be found on window and door surrounds, on pediments and on walls. But the centuries of maintaining the monuments and natural disasters like the 1975 earthquake which toppled spires, walls and corner stupas, have resulted in exposed brickwork, often crudely restored, as in the extensive rebuilding carried out in the 1990s, being the norm. Still, much of the brickwork one sees appears to be original. I don’t lament the shortage of stucco, preferring brickwork of the highest quality to plaster streaked with grime.

I don’t know if the Pitatak Kaik Library was on Ko Zay’s list, but I told him about the Khmer Libraries and how prominent a feature they were in the temple complex and that I would like to see a local example. The original, ancient structure was extensively modified in the 18th century. Three short sets of steps give access to the murky building whose unadorned interior comprises a corridor and a single, unlit chamber, a far cry from the lavish Khmer libraries. Khmer architecture replicates Hindu post and lintel construction. Spans are short. Large spaces require a plethora of columns. Proportions tend to be long and narrow. In Bagan, the round arch, provenance unknown, allows  a more varied architecture resulting in broader vaults and larger, unobstructed chambers. For its date, the arch is more evolved in Burma than anywhere else in Asia.

Temples to commemorate the Mahabodhi Temple in Bodh Gaya appeared at various times throughout the Buddhist world. The 13th century Mahabodhi Temple in Bagan is the earliest of them. The central tower forms a typically Indian tapering rectangle covered in sculpture.

Bagan must be one of the best cycle adventure tour destinations on earth, suitable for young and old. The terrain is flat, there is so much to see and the distances are reasonable. The tourism season was in full swing. Cyclists seemed to outnumber visitors travelling by car or tour bus. Perhaps the tourists were more dispersed than in Angkor, because I never found their presence grating.

The 12th century Dhammayan-Gyi Temple is the largest in Bagan. I had been there with Mu-mu. The temple emulates the Ananda in its layout, though for some unknown purpose the inner corridor has been filled in. Most of all I enjoyed seeing a cluster of smallish black bats in my torch beam, clinging to the vault of the outer corridor some 15m or more above the floor. This was a repeated pleasure as the roofs of the ill-lit buildings were an ideal haunt for bats. Returning with Ko Zay, we walked barefoot towards the ruins of a two storey monastery within the compound and, as was my wont, round the outside of the temple except that the task proved too demanding in the afternoon heat. Some of the temples have a line of marble flagstones leading from gate to porch and regardless of where the sun is they are cool underfoot. For whatever reason, the Dhammayan-Gyi was never completed. There are no finials atop pavilions and stupas and the tower is truncated. Compared with the sublime effect in the Ananda, the lighting is crude and ill-directed. The temple is associated with a monarch whose reign was short and brutal.

Ko Zay had arranged for a relative to take me on a horse cart ride for an hour, leaving time to view the setting sun from the roof gallery of the day’s final temple. Horse carts are popular with tourists and though I wouldn’t have chosen the ride, I am glad that it was on Ko Zay’s to do list. I sat next to the driver. He was a lively man, spoke fair English interspersed with an occasional ‘oh la la’ and was cheerful company. Early in the drive we had to wait in a layby on the sandy track as perhaps a dozen oncoming carts  passed us. The driver wanted to show me a typical village, the majority of ts houses made of bamboo poles with wall panels of woven palm leaves, set behind a bamboo fence. Some older residents, men and women, were taking a late afternoon walk.  The horse became restive at the sound of a crushing machine being worked by a group of villagers. Had he ever heard the excruciating din of a tree shredder, he would have bolted.

Climbing to the roof terrace to see the sunset involved someone ahead of me shining a torch, some one behind me ready to catch me if I slipped, a sharp left turn near the top of the steps and ducking beneath a low lintel. Mercifully the temple had a waist-high parapet which meant that I could relax and enjoy the view. The terrace was full of tourists. It is a moot point whether Bagan is improved by sunrise or sunset. Given the time it took me to climb up, I thought it was better if I left before the crowd.

 Bagan Day 3

My brief stay had a similarly varied structure to that at Angkor. Today it was time for the drive through countryside to a mountain destination. The road south to Mount Popa was fine considering how little traffic it carried. The villages were like the one I had seen on my horse cart ride. Rubbish was mostly taken beyond the houses and dumped at the roadside, where it would be set alight to burn off any combustible waste. In one village people were erecting a stage. Ko Zay explained that it was for a wedding, an occasion to be celebrated by the entire population. We crossed numerous dry creek beds which would have been impassable in the monsoon. The terrain had become hilly. A work gang was resting  next to their vehicles. Ko Zay told me that we were driving through an oil field and the workers were maintaining the pumps and derricks. This made me remember the Burmah-Castrol oil company, in its day the third biggest in Britain. I always associated oil fields with flat country.

We turned off the Mount Popa road to visit Salay, a religious centre with several ancient and modern temples and monasteries. Near the town the road was being resurfaced. It would be hard to find a more antedeluvian method of road making or one more injurious to health. In the late Autumn tropical heat, the tar had to be melted at the side of the road on wood fires. It was in steel drums, split open to expose the tar directly to the flames. The melted tar appeared to be sprinkled on the stone chips by what looked like  watering cans. In Salay, a religious procession was in joyous full cry. I thought I detected the lumbering form of an elephant in the distance. Boys from the local high school filled the back of a small truck performing what appeared to be a ritual dance which then simply became a boisterous display of teenage dancing to a 21st century beat, great fun to watch. We stopped at a museum to look at a display of technically dexterous 19th century artefacts and sculptures, which didn’t enthuse me. Even the temples seemed lacklustre, especially the newer ones. I was glad when we resumed our journey to Mount Popa.

The immense view from the dining terrace of the Mount Popa Resort Hotel on the slopes of the 1518m eponymous mountain, is only limited by heat haze, as there is no pollution here. Lunch was equal to the view – scrumptious river fish with rice and mulagatani soup. It is the nearby  sheer-sided volcanic plug, Taung Kalat which draws the pilgrims. Perched Mt Athos-like on its summit is a Buddhist monastery, reached by 777 steps from the village at the plug’s base. We drove down to the village. I climbed perhaps 30 steps and feeling I had nothing to prove, enjoyed the antics of a handsome breed of monkey for which the village also appeared to be home. Ko Zay had planned a little tourism side show for the return journey, a demonstration of how Toddy Palm juice is collected in earthenware pots, and how the juice is processed into a sugar and an alcoholic drink. I am not a fan of demonstrations for tourists which involve someone climbing a tapering ladder to retrieve and replace containers 15m or more above the ground without wearing any kind of safety equipment.

 Bagan Day 4

With over 2,200 monuments from which to choose, it made sense to select any which were unique, such as The Nat Hlaung Kyaung Temple, Bagan’s sole Hindu place of worship. It was built to serve the influential Brahmin community which was prominent in court life. The King at the time traced his spiritual descent from Vishnu, whose statues fill niches in the exterior wall and adorn the sanctum. Originally the building was far bigger and occupied a walled enclosure.

Whenever Ko Zay mentioned the Sulamani Temple, I thought of the Suleymaniye Mosque and complex in Istanbul. The two could scarcely be more different. The Sulamani, centuries older than the mosque and devoted to Buddha, not Allah, is one of the few buildings whose date, 1183, is known. It appears on a stone inscription in the temple’s northern entrance hall. Roughly 40% of the original exterior stucco survives, much of it in pristine condition. The carving of door and window pediments with celestial figures and mythical creatures is spectacular. The interior is noted for its 18th and 19th century wall paintings. The tower was damaged in the 1975 earthquake and the restoration failed to reproduce the proportions of the original. Within the compound are the foundations of a 14th century monastery with 80 cells.

In one of the temples we visited, Ko Zay translated a contemporary text beneath some 17th century wall paintings.  The text referred to how long the work took, how many painters were employed, where they came from and how much they were paid.

One of the pleasures of being in a country for the first and only time is to find gifts which are truly of the place, are aesthetically appealing, are not heavy and don’t take up a lot of space in one’s suitcase. The hotel gift shop’s lacquerware display fitted all the criteria other than value for money. After lunch Ko Zay dropped me off at Bagan House Lacquerware Workshop, where I was greeted by the owner who ran through a brief and informative account of the manufacturing process, showing examples of the various stages. The tradition in Bagan apparently began in the 11th century when lacquerware was used in palaces, temples and monasteries. All the materials are organic, including the pigments. I could not have been happier with my purchases.

We were on our way to the East & West Hpet Laik  Stupas which I wanted to visit after reading about them in a book I bought at a stall outside the Ananda Temple. The base of the stupas is enclosed by a modern wall and concrete roof to protect the series of terra cotta refief panels of the jataka tales which are among the earliest in Bagan and the finest in south east Asia. The jatakas are 547 stories chronicling Buddha’s former lives, though the series in the Hpet Laik Stupas includes three extra tales. The caretaker unlocked the door to the West Stupa and switched on the light which was no substitute for our torches. It is a wonder that so many of the 11th century panels have survived. Over the years a few have been plundered, others needed repairing and were not always returned to their correct niches. They are displayed in three parallel rows. I found them utterly absorbing and could have spent more time looking at them. But Ko Zay had his eye on the clock because we were due to embark on a boat trip to the final temple on his list, one which I was keen to see since reading about it in ‘Bagan Mystique’. Yet again there were echoes of my stay in Angkor, which included spending time afloat.

We embarked at a busy jetty in an 8m craft powered by a large outboard motor. There was an awning amidships beneath which we sat. Ko Zay and I were the only passengers. The captain and a youth were the crew. We chugged past tour boats, river cruise ships and a large barge loaded with cement. The channel then crossed to a river island on which we saw farm workers and livestock. Some of the islands are inhabited, but not this one. I noticed the workers’ boat hauled up on the muddy bank. A majestic Heron rested on a wooden post. The Irrawaddy with its islands is kilometeres wide here. The water was smooth. Returning closer to the shore we saw villagers bathing, washing clothes, inspecting fishing nets. Ko Zay offered me a tamarind flake out of a jar. The flake was wrapped in paper. It melted in my mouth leaving a slightly tangy yet agreeable taste which I found refreshing. I helped myself to more. Ko Zay touched briefly on his family. He has a 21 month old daughter. He and his wife live with his parents. The arrangement conforms to the average occupancy of five people per dwelling in Myanmar whereas in Australia it is 2.6.

After a relaxing hour or so on the water we arrived at the landing place where another boat was moored. An old man helped to secure our boat sufficiently far up the bank for us to set foot on dry land. The Kyauk Gu Umin Temple was a ten minute walk from the river. The feature which caught my attention is that the temple is partly carved out of the sandstone cliff against which it is built and that tunnels connect the temple to caves in which monks used to meditate. There is some excellent stone carving in the main doorway. The temple is ponderous, its ground floor 12m high. This abruptly reduces when one is forced to crouch to enter the tunnels and caves.

We were the last boat to leave. Had the outboard motor’s drive chain not snapped after the engine had propelled us a few boat lengths into the Irrawaddy, we would have made an unremarkable departure and basked in a blissful sunset on the river. Instead we found ourselves drifting downstream, edging ever closer to an uninviting river bank while the captain and crew laboured to fix the spare chain. The tension built, made worse by a sudden violent rocking caused by waves from passing traffic as we continued to drift helplessly. I had thoughts of having to swim ashore, noting which spot offered possible access. As the minutes ticked by I also had thoughts of having to spend a night on the river with unknowable consequences. True, Ko Zay had his mobile phone. True also that the boat had the look of a craft with neither radio or navigation lights. After 25 minutes the engine spluttered into life and we were under way. The light was fading as we passed the river island. The farm workers were about to cast off in their boat and return home. We completed our journey just before nightfall. Mu-mu had been told over the phone about the delay.

Ko Zay handed me the list, on which he had also written his name, as we said a fond goodbye.  Mu-mu drove me to the airport next day where we said an equally fond farewell. I showed them my appreciaiton of their kindness and good company in the most practically appropriate way.

Peter Kuttner   3 – 18 November 2013